By the time I reached Vilnius, I knew I had enough. Strolling through clamorous cities like Helsinki, St Petersburg, Moscow, and Minsk wore on me: the honking horns, crowded markets, wall-to-wall pedestrians—I needed an escape.
After hearing of Zervynos, a Lithuanian ethnographic village about 2 hours from Vilnius, I knew I found the perfect solution: it was time to get off the grid.
Located amid the dense forests of Dzūkija National Park, Zervynos doesn’t scream out “must-see” for most travellers. There’s no running water, no paved roads, and until a couple years ago, even electrical service was non-existent. It’s the type of village usually reserved for WWII films and the imagination, and with no signs to remind you of where on earth you are, you might just believe you’re locked in a strange flashback.
I was sold. With minimal information and barely more than a return ticket in hand I hopped aboard a regional train from Vilnius to whisk me away on a day trip to the middle of nowhere.
As town after town leaped into sight through the hazy train window, I felt duped, cheated out of my off-the-beaten path experience, until a stretch of forest arose south of Varėna. The sideroads and houses suddenly disappeared, the woods thickened, and soon, the train pressed to a halt at a small hut barely larger than a bus shelter: Welcome to Zervynos.
I disembarked the train, sporting the grin of a spoiled kid who just got his way, devilishly proud of a perfectly executed master plan. Once the sole departing passenger—an elderly lady with tufts of silver hair peeking out from a headscarf, holding a multicoloured handbag, containing what, at a quick glance, appeared to be a live chicken—laboured up the steps, the train putted off, leaving me alone in the wilderness with nothing but buzzing crickets as a soundtrack.
Yet somehow, despite being deep in the Lithuanian backwoods, the scene felt familiar. The frolicking chickadees, stinging fragrance of pine, and waist-high grass interspersed with dead larch needles and sand—blissful memories of my upbringing surged forward, transporting me back to all the summers I’d spent camping deep in the bush of Northern Ontario, accessible only by rail and otherwise surrounded by nothingness. I’d never felt more at home in Eastern Europe.
Relying solely on instinct, I left the train tracks behind and marched down the most trodden path I could find, a mossy forest trail barely wide enough for a vehicle, hoping it would lead me to the village.
Within ten minutes the trail branched, descending onto the first homesteads, sheltered below as if the forest floor sank to protect them from the elements. Soon I was in the thick of the village, standing on a dusty road alongside the banks of the Ūla, the river that once divided, but now unites, Zervynos, admiring a town that modern European life has all but ignored.
The town’s homes, forged with little more than pine logs and thatched roofs, preach simplicity at its finest and speak of a pioneering spirit long lost in the West. Outdoor wells, dug deep into the earth on every plot, quench the thirst of Zervynos’ residents, to whom luxuries like indoor plumbing and electricity were unimaginable until just a couple years back. Even the “facilities” were simple, most nothing more than a man-sized, milled-pine box fitted with a creaky door and a rough-cut hole in the floor to squat over when nature calls.
As I meandered about Zervynos along the dusty roads, I imagined that it wasn’t so long ago when my own country still had villages like this: raw and unadulterated, the kind of places you’d care deeply about and forever call home.
But somehow, modernism swept that away from us. Connections became wider yet shallower; simplicity like this is no longer an option, and after visiting a place like Zervynos, that becomes surprisingly harder to accept.
Zervynos is the complete anti-thesis of city life, a trait its eighty or so residents seem keen to uphold. In fact, there isn’t much of anything to do around here: no restaurants, no shops, and no adrenaline-pumping activities save the odd kayaking expedition on the Ūla. Your best bet for a day in and around Zervynos is simply to get lost and try to find yourself. And here, among the sounds of silence and forests pristine enough to make a Northern Ontarian blush, it wasn’t so hard.
Hours later, after contemplating life and aimlessly wandering about town and through the dense Dainava Forest to the northwest, my unrefreshingly salty Georgian mineral water finally ran dry, signalling the beginning of the end of my journey.
After managing, in broken Russian, to replenish my water supply at a farmstead, whose owner was all too happy to wheel a bucket deep into his well to fetch fresh groundwater for my bottle, I extended my thanks, complemented the farmer on his lovely village, and began to trek westwards back to the simple train stop that welcomed me earlier in the day.
As I waited for the Vilnius train alone on platform, I realized what struck me so deeply wasn’t Zervynos itself, but what it said to me: No matter how far you stray, there’s a thread stitching everything in your life together—a sound, a smell, a texture, a colour, or a voice declaring that home is not just where the heart is, but anywhere you roam if you search hard enough.
Have you ever gotten off the beaten path far from home? What lessons did you learn? Drop me a line below!